Three Days Delving into Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security

Bioterrorism & Biodefense

By Saskia Popescu

What do three days of a workshop on all things from anthrax to Zika look like? For one, busy. I recently attended the event held by George Mason University’s biodefense program and was surprised by not only the diversity of the instructors, but also the participants. I was curious as to how each speaker would engage the diverse audience, but quickly found myself discussing everything from foodborne outbreaks to misguided Ebola responses, with not only those around me, but also the speakers.

Attendees included people from Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, and private industry such as Merrick & Company and Emergent Biosolutions. I was surprised to also see people from Sandia National Labs, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, and even other universities. The diversity of the group led to some thought-provoking conversations surrounding topics like cyberbiosecurity and responding to biosecurity as ‘a wicked problem’. The workshop participants were an engaging group that left me re-thinking how I approach many of these biodefense topics.

The workshop began with conversations surrounding how we might analyze biological threats not only from a social and cultural ecological perspective, but also through the resiliency of prevention practices. If we can’t always prevent, how do we respond? MIT’s Sanford Weiner posed such questions to the group, followed by a presentation on the swine flu pandemic of 1976 and discussion on how much the U.S. has learned from mass immunization history, especially compared to the UK.

David Franz, previously of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and the National and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), then discussed the hot topic of the moment – dual-use research of concern (DURC). Pulling from decades of experience in both policy and science, Franz pointed to American knee-jerk reaction to regulate and the painful truth – every major technology has been exploited for good and bad. Franz reviewed the experiments that fueled the DURC debate, but what was truly fascinating, was not only his comments regarding Amerithrax-suspect Bruce Ivins, but what it’s like being in the science community during the age of biosafety and biosecurity. Franz has a foot in both camps – science and regulation, and his insight was fascinating and a breath of fresh air.

The second day of the workshop was focused on medical countermeasures, safeguarding the bioeconomy, and biosurveillance. It was a jam-packed schedule, but with rapid-fire discussions and speakers that infused humor and personal accounts of just how challenging health security can be.

Virologist Robert House gave a technical account of how we develop medical countermeasures (MCM), outlining characteristics that should be present to support the utility of MCM innovation – not just a rationale, but ultimately improvement of the probability of mission succession, affordability, etc. House underscored the challenging timeline of innovation, but also discussed different MCMs and that ultimately, disruptive technologies drive change.

Next, virologist and coronavirus-expert Andy Kilianski discussed the realities of biosurveillance. Kilianski was careful to include One Health, which is often forgotten when discussing biodefense and biosurveillance. Citing examples from Ebola and Zika, he discussed how biosurveillance systems work at a technical and practical level, but that often barriers like technological limitations and data information sharing can be a hinderance. Kilianski brought forth a rousing discussion regarding wearable technologies (smart textiles, tattoos, keychains, etc.) and the struggle with their utility against potential for data-misuse.

Supervisory Special Agent Edward You then discussed the role of WMD coordinators and their work preventing and detecting biocrimes. Pointing to the debates surrounding DURC and the moratorium on gain-of-function research, You then noted the recent horsepox synthesis by researchers in Canada. It was fascinating to learn how the FBI is working with the DIYbio community (iGEM competition, amateur biology labs, etc.) to safeguard science without stifling innovation. Protecting genomic and other bio data also became a topic of discussion as incidents of health insurance hacks increase and companies like 23-And-Me become more popular. Overall, the security of bio data was definitely a theme of the second day and raised several interesting questions about cyberbiosecurity and just how much information we’re putting out there.

Our last day at the workshop focused on influenza, biosecurity as a wicked problem, and Ebola. Filovirus virologist Jens Kuhn (who I’m pretty sure has more letters following his name than in it) started his talk on an Ebola biological risk assessment, by first discussing the challenges of performing science while meeting regulatory requirements. He gave insight into the complicated world of laboratory work and ensuring quality, while recognizing the impact of flawed publications. Kuhn pointed to several Ebola publications that considerably missed the mark and if one simply investigated further, could easily be found to be flawed or wholly false.

It was fascinating to hear Kuhn discuss the difficulty in identifying zoonotic reservoirs and hosts, and that ultimately, we have a lot of work to do in understanding how zoonotic diseases make their way through the ecosystem.

The workshop closed with a presentation and engaging discussion led by biodefense professor Gregory Koblentz, on biosecurity as a wicked problem. Discussing the inherent complexity of wicked problems, like biosecurity, and what that means for the problem-solving process, Koblentz posed several questions to the group that made us question many of the current approaches (both at a national level and how we would do things personally) to biosecurity and biosafety. Conflicting perspectives on risk and response, he noted, is problematic between how public health and national security approach biosecurity and infectious disease threats. Whether it be DURC or the building of a BSL-4 lab in downtown Boston, the ways in which biosecurity and biosafety issues are sparked continue to surprise us.

Overall, the workshop kept a fast pace with a dazzling array of speakers that had some pretty remarkable CVs. One thing was wholly apparent throughout the three days – each speaker was truly passionate about their field and earnest in their attempts to make it better and bring forth the next generation of biodefense gurus. While my time getting to talk to some of them was short, it was great listening to them speak about global health security efforts and challenges from a wide array of avenues. It’s easy to forget how diverse the world of health security is, but the variety of speakers and even my fellow participants demonstrates how it takes a village to support global health security and defend against biological threats.

Saskia Popescu is a Graduate Research Assistant and PhD student in George Mason University’s Biodefense program. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Classical History, with a specialization on disease in ancient Rome, a Master’s in Public Health in Epidemiology, and a Masters of Arts in International Security Studies, from the University of Arizona. She is a certified infection preventionist with a focus on infectious diseases, global health security, and healthcare system vulnerability to bioterrorism. She can be reached at spopesc2@gmu.edu and is the current editor of the Pandora Report and the Pandora Report’s Twitter feed @Pandora Report

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